Andre McGee can admit it now. He was scared. Really scared. Like “uh-oh, is this it?” kind of scared.
Walking out of the huddle late in the second half of top-seeded Louisville’s second-round game against Siena last Sunday, the senior guard looked up at the clock, saw the Cardinals trailing by four and wondered just for a second if his team’s two-month roll was finally over.
“It’s definitely a fear when time’s winding down and you had a comfortable lead – you thought – at one moment and then that lead was gone in a minute and they were up, they were in control,” McGee said.
It’s the kind of exam the Cardinals (30-5) have managed to ace again and again this season. Louisville stormed back to a 79-72 victory and a spot in the Midwest region semifinals Friday against 12th-seeded Arizona (21-13).
The win was Louisville’s 10th straight in games decided by 10 points or fewer. They’ve done it the way teams aren’t supposed to be able to do it in the nation’s toughest conference.
Louisville doesn’t rely on great guard play. Instead, it’s do-everything senior forward Terrence Williams who handles the ball when it matters.
The Cardinals don’t make free throws. Louisville shots 64 percent from the line as a team – including 50 percent so far in the NCAAs – and only two regular contributors have percentages north of 70.
At this point in the season, coach Rick Pitino holds no great hopes that the Cardinals will somehow turn into a dozen Reggie Millers at the line.
Sure, they’ll practice them, go through the whole routine of making so many in a row before they can head off the court. But they’ve been doing that most of the season.
If they make them? Great. If they miss? Deal with it and dig in. It’s what they’ve done all season.
“You win with defense,” Pitino said. “We have weaknesses like everybody has weaknesses. There are games when we shoot well from the foul line also. I think the bottom line is it comes down to shooting the basketball, creating turnovers and creating a style that wins out.”
It’s a style the Cardinals have used to win the Big East regular season and conference titles, one that is a grittier version of Pitino’s Kentucky teams of the mid-1990s.
Those teams won as much with talent as toughness. This team doesn’t have those star qualities. What it does have, however, is Williams, one of the best all-around players in the country.
More of an athlete than a basketball player as a freshman, Williams has evolved into the unquestioned leader and most outlandish character on a team McGee calls “the funniest in the country.”
Williams leads the Cardinals in assists and steals and “gotta have ’em” plays. He scored seven points during Louisville’s game-turning 9-0 run and added a couple of late free throws, a good sign for a player who shoots 58 percent at the line.
Running the offense – and doing it while logging heavy minutes – isn’t exactly a role he envisioned. Yet his play hasn’t given Pitino a choice. Pitino tinkered with his lineup for weeks early in the season hoping McGee, Edgar Sosa or Jerry Smith would take control at the point.
None of them did. So Pitino turned to Williams, whose 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best on the team. Oh, and a midseason adjustment to his shooting form has made him one of the best 3-pointer shooters on the team as well.
The co-captain, however, refuses to take the credit. While his coach likened him to Superman for the way he rescued the Cardinals against the Saints, Williams looks at it more as the next step in a learning process that began in November and December.
Louisville hardly looked like a team capable of a deep March run while losing to Western Kentucky and Minnesota. Their last loss in a close game? A 56-55 defeat to UNLV on New Year’s Eve, when Williams missed a contested layup at the buzzer.
And the final seven minutes against Siena looked an awful lot like wins over Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Marquette. Great defense, a couple of big stops and enough will to survive even as they missed free throws.
“We just dug in (against Siena),” Williams said. “That just shows you the chemistry and growth of this team to now from the early losses, because like I said at the beginning of the year we would have lost that game.”
Louisville doesn’t lose them anymore. Even without great guard play or consistent free-throw shooting.
The Cardinals like their chances anyway. It helps to have depth and it’s even better to have Williams, as his roommate likes to remind people, still isn’t 100 percent five months after knee surgery.
“He’s been grabbing tougher rebounds and diving for plays like nothing is wrong with him,” McGee said. “Only people that know that he’s sore is really just me and the trainer. … Once he laces his shoes up, he goes out there and plays like there’s nothing wrong.”